Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

God and Suffering: The Fascinating Blogalogue

Often on Beyond Blue, we’ve discussed the problem of suffering, and where God is in all of it. We’ve debated how God can be good and all-powerful when so many people live with chronic illnesses like depression and poverty and disease.
I wanted to excerpt a few paragraphs from the fascinating blogalogue on Beliefnet between Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham for the Church of England and has taught at McGill, Oxford, and Cambridge.
Reading their correspondences reminded me of my small philosophy and theology classrooms back when I was studying theology, when you’d leave with more questions with which you entered.
Especially interesting was Bart Ehrman’s religious history. For most of his life he was a devout Christian, believing in God and trusting in Christ for salvation. About nine or ten years ago that changed. He writes:


I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. I simply no longer could hold to the view—which I took to be essential to Christian faith—that God was active in the world, that he answered prayer, that he intervened on behalf of his faithful, that he brought salvation in the past and that in the future, eventually in the coming eschaton, he would set to rights all that was wrong, that he would vindicate his name and his people and bring in a good kingdom (either at our deaths or here on earth in a future utopian existence).
We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.



Ironically, he’s been led back to the Bible in all of his wrestling with the problem of suffering. In his recent book, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer.” Says Ehrman:

My contention is that many of the authors of the Bible are wrestling with just this question: why do people (especially the people of God) suffer? The biblical answers are striking at times for their simplicity and power (suffering comes as a punishment from God for sin; suffering is a test of faith; suffering is created by cosmic powers aligned against God and his people; suffering is a huge mystery and we have no right to question why it happens; suffering is redemptive and is the means by which God brings salvation; and so on). Some of these answers are at odds with one another (is it God or his cosmic enemies who are creating havoc on earth?), yet many of them continue to inform religious thinkers today.
My hope in writing the book is certainly not to encourage readers to become agnostic, the path that I took. It is instead to help people think, both about this biggest of all possible questions and about the historically and culturally significant religious responses to it that can be found in the most important book in the history of our civilization.


N.T. Wright responds with this:

Your question is, How can there be all these horrors ‘if there is a good and all powerful God in charge of the world?’ My comment, in my previous posting, was that in the Gospels, Jesus’ claim is, in effect, ‘This is what it looks like when God is running the world’ (one way of saying ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’). Of course I am alive to the different emphases and nuances between the Gospels, but in their different ways they agree, I think, on this: that what was going on during Jesus’ public career actually was the inauguration of ‘God being in charge of the world’ in a new way. (In this, despite their various emphases, the canonical gospels agree over against the non-canonical, wouldn’t you say?)??Of course, it didn’t look like Jesus’ contemporaries were hoping it would (victory for Israel against her enemies; new levels of purity attained; etc.). In the same way, it doesn’t look like what we would want (God abolishing disease, war, hatred, natural disaster, etc. at a stroke). But it seems to have been Jesus’ claim that this is what Israel’s God, the world’s creator, was actually up to.
From that point of view I suppose the Gospels constituted, and still constitute, a challenge to all expectations, particularly in that they link – as readers for hundreds have years have found it difficult to do – the story of Jesus’ kingdom-inauguration with the story of his crucifixion and resurrection. Somehow, they are saying, this is what it looks like when the good, all-powerful and all-loving God is in charge of the world. You may say that if this is what they’re saying then the God of whom they speak is not ‘all-powerful’ in the way we might have imagined, and I suspect that is in a sense correct. Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running of the world’ (if that’s the right phrase) in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way, running the world through an obedient, and ultimately suffering, human being, with that obedience, and especially that suffering, somehow instrumental in the whole process. What ‘we would want God to do’ – to have God measure up to our standards of ‘how a proper, good and powerful God would be running the world’! – seems to be the very thing that Jesus was calling into question.


In some ways, this takes us back to the questions I raised in my post, “Dear God: Why Lazarus?” and how my college professor, Joe Incandela, tried to explain the whole God-and-suffering puzzle to me:

If God saved us all the time, then the world would be so unpredictable that it would lack the kind of stability needed for most human activity. This has been called the “cosmic nursery school” view–one does good and gets rewarded, and does bad and gets punished. But if that happened all the time, then God would be constantly intervening in the world in ways that would make any sort of regularity in our lives look impossible. It would also make something like compassion impossible.
Compassion (or work for justice or whatever good deed you want to substitute here) requires a regular world, and a regular world means that some people get hurt who don’t deserve to get hurt. I suppose that in a broad sense, this all can be attributed to the Fall. But I think that another reasonable answer is that this is the price of a finite world. Only God is infinite and unlimited. Because of that, any created entity will be corruptible or conflicted in some way. Corruptible or conflicted things tend to rub up against other corruptible or conflicted things, and the result is physical or moral evil.

What do you think? Or is it just best not to go there (you know, if you have too many other questions and concerns fighting for think time in your brain)?

  • Valerie

    I’m too busy bawling (for what reason, I don’t know) to really read this whole thing so my take on Why do we suffer? Bottom line: Because of sin. The Fall.
    It sucks but no-one ever said it was going to be easy. We weren’t promised easy-going lives as Christians. But we were promised that God will never leave us. Solace sometimes. Sometimes, not so much.

  • Larry Parker

    If “this is what it looks like when G-d is running the world,” Bishop Wright is handing the case for atheism, that his countrymen Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins make so loudly, to them (and to the American Sam Harris) on a silver platter.
    On the other hand, all hope is not lost. I find your friend Prof. Incandela’s explanation much more persuasive for justifying a theistic point of view in a world with untold suffering.

  • tee

    I need help I’m trying not to give up on life. I am so tired of struggling with three kids in which one of them is caught upin the streets. Their fathers is not around to help support them and I’m just tired. Please can somebody help this single mother trying to do whats right by her children and herself.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know why humans suffer, but I believe we are limited to time and space…and once freed of such constraints we live on forever…ever changed by what we experienced here. I guess we never would grow if we don’t experience it. But my question is why do some people have to bear so much as compared to others? Is it like child birth…so painful when it occurs but so joyful after the birth that the pain fades away or if it doesn’t it is used as some other motivating force? I dunno. tee, I will say a prayer for you and your family. John

  • Annie Turner

    We suffer because of the sins of those who came before us. Like the ones that come after will suffer for the sins of us. But we can overcome suffering by believing that we can take our faith beyond it. It takes a lot of prayer & meditation to bring the suffering to a tickle of pain till none.
    The suffering we entail brings a better understanding of God’s love for us as mere normal humanbeings. If you let the belief system rule your life. Also let God answer his reasons with the help of the spirits & angels because they’d guide you to right road of promises.

  • Sara Wilson

    There seems to be a common notion of God shared by Dr. Ehrman and Dr. Wright—which is that God’s power is unilateral. In other words, it is in God’s power to coercively overrule the power of lesser beings (such as the geological plates whose movements result in tsunamis, the cancer cells which result in a human death, the decisions of government leaders which result in starvation). And yet, if one’s power could be coercively overruled, in what sense would it be power?
    The theologian Charles Hartshorne has said that there is evil because “the making of the world is not a simple act of deity, but a fusion of divine and lesser acts, all in their fashion self determining, creative or free.” God’s power, suggests Hartshorne and Alfred North Whitehead, is persuasive rather than coercive, and any given occurrence requires the assent and cooperation of lesser beings to God’s persuasive love.
    The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is that this love does ultimately produce the power to transcend even death. Death does not have the final word. I can’t speculate on how that looks or functions, but I do have faith that this Divine love is real, and its outcomes are powerful.

  • Bob

    I think what we as Christians often forget, is that God didn’t act avoid suffering Himself. Rather, Jesus threw himself headlong into it. So if it wasn’t God’s intention to avoid suffering, then why should we look to avoid it?
    In fact, as a Catholic, I’m taught to do quite the opposite. We’re taught to embrace suffering, offer it up to Jesus as spiritual sacrifice, and unite our suffering with His, with the Passion.
    We forget that compassion means quite literally “to suffer with”, not “eliminate suffering”. We suffer alongside our loved ones, because that’s a greater act of love than even eliminating the pain would be. That’s why Jesus didn’t come down and end our suffering, but rather experienced the worst of it right along with us, and for us.
    The most perfect love will suffer with you. And by suffering alongside each other, we’re given the chance to act out that perfect love, the chance to be like God.

  • Larry Parker

    Yes, it’s a huge simplification, but in the end doesn’t it come down to the idea that G-d can be all-powerful/almighty, G-d can be all-loving — but G-d, with his dominion as this terribly flawed world, clearly cannot be both?
    It is a legitimate response to worship and praise G-d as an all-loving being who is MORE powerful than human beings. But I find the worship of G-d simply because G-d is (supposedly) almighty to be monstrous, because of what that clearly represents for G-d’s loving nature, or lack thereof.

  • diana

    I continue to feel that while we are asking Where is God he is asking, Where are you? He told us to love one another…how many people conciously do that with every single person they come across? Are you REALLY concerned about suffering? If so, you love those who are suffering close to you, not just starving children you really can´t do anything about. You give money to a homeless person, knowing that that person is worth as much as you, or Bill Gates. We are all equal, and I think God is waiting for alot of people to realize that the drunk in the gutter is worth the same as…a newborn baby. Who are you to judge? he told us to not judge anyone…we need to be able to identify with the very person who disgusts us, I think. We do not know how they got that way or what they went through to cause them to be who they are.

  • elspeth

    The Old Testament reveals that the fall was engineered by the rebellion of the human being against God and resulted in catastrophic damage. That fall not only affected the human but nature itself. From the earliest books of the OT God reveals his plan to reverse the effects of our own actions. Abraham is called out of Ur (present day Iraq) to homestead in Canaan. God’s people, if obedient, were to know the presence of God, as a manifest presence, visible over the tabernacle. When God’s presence was visible there was no sickness in the physical body, any animal or crop and no enemy could prevail against Israel. Through Israel all the nations of the world were to know this presence of God which also meant the end of horrifying suffering on earth (still only a temporary home, but now God’s footstool and no longer ‘a bad night in a bad inn’) What more could we want? Apparently the human race is devoted to it’s own suffering, for even Israel turned from God, causing the presence of God to depart Israel. When the high priest Aron hears that his sons have been killed and the ark of the covenant has been captured he falls back, breaking his neck, His daughter in law dies giving birth and the child is named Ichabod meaning “the glory of the Lord has left the temple”…the most tragic words of the OT>
    Though the world refused the kingdom of God and the redemption of the body and nature itself, God again offered Himself sending his Son. Again, the world refuses. Jesus reign, if we read Scripture on face value, involves the redemption of the physical world. We read “All of nature groans as in the throes of childbirth, waiting for the sons (and daughters) of God to be revealed.”
    Where are these sons and daughters of God who are willing to lay down all other objectives in order to become the new temple and the channel of God’s power? This is our human responsibility, our necessary response to God’s plan. But we refuse. We often childishly cherish our suffering and blame God rather than grow up in knowledge and awe of God and devote ourselves to His Plan for the redemption of earth.

  • Linda Bemis

    We are the essence of the creator. We have a free will to choose. The
    will to live or die will be strong.
    Satan is a different matter in our society. Why would someone be misled
    to take man made drugs,sugar and salt that is harmful to the body?
    Gambling,poison in different forms,anger,violence,greed and crime will
    take its toll on many people who are involved. Viruses will take many
    lives very quickly.
    Pollution is another matter. Basic Principals to live by must be taught
    to the young for our society to succeed.
    There are causes and issues to be considered. Belief is something to
    consider in this equation.

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